Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 27, 2007

Inside North Korea: two documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:18 pm

Joe Dresnok in North Korea

Although somewhat lacking in political analysis, the two documentaries by British director Daniel Gordon titled “Crossing the Line” and “A State of Mind” are must-see’s for anybody with the least bit of curiosity about one of the most taboo subjects in the West–North Korea, which is more subject to Orwellian “hate minutes” than any nation on earth.

“Crossing the Line,” which premieres at Cinema Village in New York on August 8th, tells the story of James Joseph Dresnok (he refers to himself as Joe Dresnok), the last American GI defector still living in North Korea. He walked across the DMZ in 1962 and became a solid citizen of a diehard Stalinist state. Dresnok is from a broken home in the South and joined the army like so many other such youths to stay out of trouble. He has retained the “good old boy” mannerisms of his youth but also speaks fluent Korean and sings the praises of Communism. For Dresnok, the system is just a more extreme version of the welfare state. During his entire time in North Korea, he has never missed a meal–so he informs his interviewers.

Three other soldiers defected around the same time, all with the same kind of hard-scrabble, working-class backgrounds. When you hear their story, you can almost accept the official version on Lee Harvey Oswald, namely that he defected to the USSR out of political convictions. With Dresnok, the political convictions had nothing to do with Marxism. He was just sick and tired of authority. With a rebellious–but not politically so–streak, he was facing his second court martial for going on leave without permission and possible jail time. He told himself that North Korea couldn’t be much worse than what he was facing.

As it turned out, North Korea had many of the same authoritarian aspects of army life. An older and wiser Joe Dresnok tells his interviewers that all institutions are the same. You just have to learn to live within them. One suspects that if he had grown older in the U.S., he’d never had shown the slightest interest in Communism. Dresnok’s claim to fame in North Korea, along with the other three defectors, is that he was cast in a villainous role in the North Korean propaganda film “Unsung Heroes”.

Charles Robert Jenkins, one of the other defectors, eventually became Dresnok’s nemesis. He was married to a Japanese woman, who was allegedly kidnapped by the North Koreans in order to teach their spies Japanese language and customs. After she returned to Japan in 2002, he left North Korea to join her. Once free from North Korean control, he gave the sort of sensationalistic testimonials that is par for the course. You know the drill. The North Koreans boil Christians in oil; Kim Jong-il drinks $1000 bottles of cognac 3 nights a week, etc. He also accused Dresnok of beating him up on a daily basis. Whatever one might think of Dresnok, he certainly doesn’t give the impression of being a sadist. As for Jenkins, he only received 30 days for the crimes of desertion and aiding the enemy, which shows how evenhanded the U.S. can be with those returning to the True Faith.

Training for the Mass Games

Made in 2004, “A State of Mind” (available from Netflix, etc.) takes you inside the homes of two young female gymnasts who participate in North Korea’s “Mass Games”, a kind of throwback to the huge May Day celebrations presided over by Joseph Stalin. In North Korea, this takes the form of thousands of young gymnasts dressed in colorful costumes performing in a huge Pyongyang Arena. For the two girls, getting a chance to perform before Kim Jong-il is the greatest honor in the world.

One girl is from a working-class family, the other from an “intellectual class” family–her father teaches physics on a college level. In North Korea, official Marxist theory posits 3 major classes: workers, intellectuals and peasants. Whatever else you want to say, the intellectuals are certainly not privileged. Both families live in Soviet-style apartment buildings, with as many as 8 people crowded into 4 rooms. They openly admit that life is hard, but feel that things are improving nowadays. There is, of course, something to be said for this, since I haven’t heard a word about North Koreans eating tree bark for a few years now. Since I often pick up the NY Post for the sports pages and listen to Rush Limbaugh for laughs, I surely would have noticed if this point had been made.

“A State of Mind” is a thoroughly engaging film and will remind you of “Hoop Dreams” and many other sports documentaries. Indeed, director Daniel Gordon is something of a specialist in the field, also having made the 2002 “Game of their Lives”, about how North Korea upset Italy in the 1966 World Cup.

To Gordon’s credit, he is simply not interested in making propaganda one way or the other. He is more interested in people than in ideas. For those of us who have had anti-Communist propaganda stuffed down our throats for the past 50 years, his documentaries are a refreshing change of pace.

June 26, 2007

Alex Callinicos debates New Zealand SWP over Venezuela

Filed under: Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:08 pm

Alex Callinicos

As many of you are aware, there is a debate taking place in the International Socialist Tendency (IST), the state capitalist formation led by the Socialist Workers Party in Great Britain. The New Zealand Socialist Workers Party, an affiliate, has begun to push for a much more positive attitude toward Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution:

Socialists worldwide should be enthusiastic about the Bolivarian Revolution. Socialists worldwide need to engage with the revolution’s leaders, who will be in the PSUV, so there can be a reciprocity of ideas that promotes the global struggle for grassroots self-emancipation. Thus Socialist Worker-New Zealand is looking to forge practical links with our PSUV comrades in a land where socialism is well on the way to becoming a determining force.

In his response to the New Zealanders, Alex Callinicos of the British SWP tries to stake out a position somewhere in-between the New Zealander’s enthusiasm and the kind of hostility expressed in a Chris Harman article from 5 years ago:

Chavez has described the attempts of the upper classes to get rid of him as a “class struggle”. But his response to these attempts has only partially relied on the backing of the country’s poor.

After the attempted coup in April he repeatedly called for “national conciliation” between the rich and the poor. Although the US had given some backing to the coup, he declared he was prepared to work to ensure the US government got its oil supplies.

And while Chavez denounced neo-liberalism in words, his government’s budget accepted the neo-liberal principle of cuts in government services. The result is that the poor have continued to get poorer. Meanwhile, public sector workers have been faced with job cuts and cancellation of bonuses to which they are entitled.

Although Callinicos et al do not use the term “Bonapartist” to describe Chavez, it is not too difficult to glean this from his response to the New Zealanders:

But exciting though such remarks [a reference to Chavez’s salute to some of Trotsky’s writings] may be for Trotskyists confined to the political margins for two generations, it doesn’t alter the fact that he presides over a bureaucratic state machine that continues to sustain capitalist social relations against the mass movements on which any real revolutionary breakthrough depends. Hence the constant balancing act [ie, Bonapartist] between the state and the mass movements that he is constantly forced into.

Clearly, what’s at work here is the “socialism from below” mindset that I do not find very useful, particularly in Venezuela. While Chavez superficially might be regarded as “from above” because of his military background, there is clear evidence of his close bonds to revolutionary organizations operating at the grass roots level. If I were the IST, I’d pay a little less attention to orthodox Trotskyist figures like the oddly named Stalin Perez and more to the men and women who were members of Causa R and now form the backbone of the Bolivarist movement. They were the first to understand the importance of Chavez’s initiatives and have helped keep the revolution on track, even if they haven’t gotten the kind of attention they deserve.

Callinicos tells the New Zealanders that they should be careful and not make the mistakes of the American SWP and the Australian DSP, who were formerly political allies in the Fourth International. The first group has evolved into a grotesque sect-cult while the Australians are doing a good job building a socialist propaganda group under difficult circumstances. Some time ago, Peter Camejo urged them to study the Causa R but they unfortunately seem to prefer the Zinovievist methodology of James P. Cannon, the founder of the American SWP. Callinicos writes:

One reason for adding these notes of caution is to avoid the mistakes that the far left have made over past revolutions in Latin America. For example, in the mid-1980s the Socialist Workers Party (US) and the organization now calling itself the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP) in Australia abandoned the theory of permanent revolution and broke with the Fourth International on the grounds that the 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua had thrown up a ‘new revolutionary leadership’ that rendered the Trotskyist tradition obsolete. This political shift led both organizations in what can be best described as a left Stalinist direction that, for example, led the DSP to try to resurrect the bankrupt formula of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ in respect of the Indonesian Revolution of 1998.

We believe that there is a qualitative difference between the cases of Nicaragua and other Central American struggles in the 1980s and Bolivia and Venezuela today. The geopolitical context has changed dramatically – then the Second Cold War made the Sandinistas and the FMLN in El Salvador key targets in the Reagan administration’s counter-revolutionary strategy, now, as we have noted, Latin American movements confront a weakened and distracted American imperialism. More important still, the Venezuelan and Bolivian struggles are driven by politically diverse popular movements employing the weapons of mass action, and not by national liberation fronts specializing in guerrilla warfare and therefore necessarily distanced from the urban masses that dominated the Central American left a generation ago.

All the same, we should learn from the mistakes made by the SWP (US) and the DSP and not to be too quick to proclaim that we are on the verge of ‘a mass socialist international’ centred on Caracas. This doesn’t mean that we should avoid the ‘engagement with the Bolivarian Revolution’ that you advocate. On the contrary, as indicated above, we have made some attempts to do so, and will continue with this. The basis on which this should be, in the first place, solidarity with Chávez and the Venezuelan masses in their clashes with both US imperialism and the Venezuelan oligarchy. Following from that we need to develop closer links between trade unions and the like in our own countries and mass organizations in Venezuela (we have taken some steps in this direction here in Britain, but undeniably a lot more could and should be done). Finally, we should, to the best of our abilities as organizations in countries mostly a long way away from Latin America, pursue dialogue with the different elements of the radical and revolutionary left in Venezuela.

There’s a lot of analysis (most of it incorrect) that is packed into the preceding three paragraphs. Let me try to sort things out as they say in British gangster movies.

To begin with, I think it is necessary to avoid thinking in categories such as “permanent revolution” or “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” when it comes to a living revolution. In my own writings on Nicaragua, I have tried to describe the social and economic processes without resorting to formulae that arose from the Russian revolution. When Trotsky developed the theory of the permanent revolution, it was part and parcel of trying to understand what was unique to the struggle against Czarism. But the theory was driven by the data and not the other way around. In general, I find that Trotskyist groups are always trying to shoehorn reality into their pet theories. A much better way to proceed is to study the history of the country in question and develop an analysis that engages with that history and not some other country’s history.

While it is easy to take potshots at the transformed FSLN of today, there was every reason to acknowledge their breakthrough in 1970s and 80s. This was the first revolutionary movement to have won the backing of the overwhelming majority of workers and peasants since 1959. It was incumbent on all revolutionaries to study what had worked in Nicaragua, especially the ability of the FSLN to craft a program that was rooted in the Nicaraguan experience. Their ability to raise slogans that connected with the experience of poor peasants and workers was much more critical than where they stood on “permanent revolution”.

There is also some confusion on Callinicos’s part about the role of mass action in the Central American revolutions of the 1970s and 80s, which he unfortunately sees in terms of Regis Debray’s foquismo theory:

More important still, the Venezuelan and Bolivian struggles are driven by politically diverse popular movements employing the weapons of mass action, and not by national liberation fronts specializing in guerrilla warfare and therefore necessarily distanced from the urban masses that dominated the Central American left a generation ago.

Actually, the guerrilla warfare in El Salvador only took place after a prolonged series of powerful mass actions were finally drowned in blood by the government. Even after the movement was forced to go underground, the urban masses were deeply involved in the struggle. It would appear that Callinicos is making the same mistake that his comrade Mike Gonzalez has made about the Cuban revolution. Rather than seeing it exclusively in terms of rural guerrilla warfare, it is better to trace the deeper historical roots in the left-nationalist parties such as the Ortodoxos and much earlier institutions and personalities such as José Marti. From this perspective, there is much more in common between the “urban” Venezuela and the “rural” Cuba than seen at first blush.

Finally, it would appear that there are certain built-in limits to Callinicos’s goal:

Finally, we should, to the best of our abilities as organizations in countries mostly a long way away from Latin America, pursue dialogue with the different elements of the radical and revolutionary left in Venezuela.

That dialog will be difficult to sustain in the face of IST hostility to the Cuban revolution. Unfortunately for the comrades, there is the obvious political affinity between the Venezuelan, Ecuadorian, and Bolivian heads of state and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Even the Grant-Woods tendency has been forced to backtrack on its assessment of Cuba, a sea change in the kind of ortho-Trotskyist politics they represent.

It continues to astonish me how detached from reality these otherwise sensible comrades are in the face of Fidel Castro’s recent communiqués. Most revolutionaries would greet his words, drafted from his sickbed, as astonishing in their insight and commitment to class politics. Two months ago, Castro wrote an article titled “Where Have All the Bees Gone” that is imbued with the ecosocialist politics of most of his recent articles. He writes:

On our poor and anything but consumerist island, one would be unable to find enough workers to endure the rigors of the harvest and to care for the sugarcane plantations in the ever more intense heat, rains or droughts. When hurricanes lash the island, not even the best machines can harvest the bent-over and twisted canes. For centuries, the practice of burning sugarcane was unknown and no soil was compacted under the weight of complex machines and enormous trucks. Nitrogen, potassium and phosphate fertilizers, today extremely expensive, did not yet even exist, and the dry and wet months succeeded each other regularly. In modern agriculture, no high yields are possible without crop rotation methods.

On Sunday, April 1, the French Press Agency (AFP) published disquieting reports on the subject of climate change, which experts gathered by the United Nations already consider an inevitable phenomenon that will spell serious repercussions for the world in the coming decades.

According to a UN report to be approved next week in Brussels, climate change will have a significant impact on the American continent, generating more violent storms and heat waves and causing droughts, the extinction of some species and even hunger in Latin America.

The AFP report indicates that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forewarned that at the end of this century, every hemisphere will endure water-related problems and, if governments take no measures in this connection, rising temperatures could increase the risks of mortality, contamination, natural catastrophes and infectious diseases.

In Latin America, global warming is already melting glaciers in the Andes and threatening the Amazon forest, whose perimeter may slowly be turned into a savannah, the cable goes on to report.

Because a great part of its population lives near the coast, the United States is also vulnerable to extreme natural phenomena, as hurricane Katrina demonstrated in 2005. According to AFP, this is the second of three IPCC reports which began to be published last February, following an initial scientific forecast which established the certainty of climate change.

Instead of publishing the sad, sectarian musings of an obscure college professor like Sam Farber, the IST comrades should wake up to reality and publish these twilight thoughts of Fidel Castro that are sure to be studied one hundred years from now as the best that 21st century socialism had to offer.

June 25, 2007

New York Asian Film Festival 2007

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:45 pm


A scene from “Dasepo Naughty Girls”

New York Asian Film Festival 2007 began last Friday night and will continue to July 5th. I want to urge everybody in the New York area to check the schedule at http://www.subwaycinema.com/ and come out for some of the most innovative and exciting film fare in the world today. “Reorient”, the last book written by the renowned socialist scholar Andre Gunder Frank, argued that Asia will leapfrog Europe and the USA sometime in the 21st century and regain the preeminence it enjoyed before the West colonized the East. Although I have my doubts about some of the economic arguments that Frank makes, I feel that there is more than a grain of truth when it comes to cultural matters. There is little doubt that Asia excels in film today, a medium that for our epoch is equivalent in importance to the novel of the 18th and 19th century. Thanks to Grady Hendrix of Subway Cinema, the indefatigable organizer of the film festival and all-round great guy, I received screeners for a number of the films and will begin blogging about them today. I will group my reviews by country and start with Korea, the origin of some of the most brilliant film-making I have seen in the past 10 years.

1) “Dasepo Naughty Girls” (2006)

Dasepo High School is a Korean version of the high school featured in John Waters’s “Hairspray.” Dasepo, which means useless, is a school filled with promiscuous, cell phone addicted adolescents who spend every free moment having sex or discussing it. If the East is supposed to overtake the West, it is doubtful that the students from Dasepo will be leading the charge. That being said, it is a sign of the health of Korean society that such characters can be the heroes of such a genre and gender-busting movie, a clear indication that Confucian/puritan values and capitalist acquisitiveness no longer have a grip on the population they once did. Dasepo’s students are pure libidinous spirits, whose rebelliousness evokes Jean Vigo’s “Zéro De Conduite.”

Apparently, their randiness is contagious. After a social studies teacher begins lecturing them on the uniqueness and superiority of Korean civilization, he is shocked to discover that the students are having none of it. One tells the teacher that Tae Kwan Do, the Korean martial arts discipline, was borrowed from Japanese karate. Shaking his head in dismay, he tells the students that he is at fault, not them. If he had been doing his job properly, they’d be more persuaded of Korean greatness. He demands that the students punish him for his failure. He pulls his pants down, revealing a woman’s panty, and orders the class monitor, a sexy girl, to come up to the front of the room and spank him with a whip that has been concealed in a box filled with S&M paraphernalia. After each lash, the teacher moans in ecstasy.

The film revolves around the trials and tribulations of a handful of characters. Poor Girl is, as the name implies, a poor girl who lives in a shack with her mother on the outskirts of town. To escape poverty, the mom has joined a pyramid scheme, which literally means selling little pyramid models. But the real money comes from Poor Girl’s part-time job as a call girl, which more often than not involves not sex, but taking part in her clients’ fantasies. One of the clients is a top gangster who enjoys cross-dressing as a woman named Big Razor Sis. When Poor Girl visits Big Razor Sis, she gets paid for allowing her client to take pictures of them together. “Don’t we look like twin sisters,” Big Razor Sis asks at one point in obvious contradistinction to his heavy-boned, gorilla-like features.

As in all high schools, students like Poor Girl tend to be looked down upon by the wealthier students. She has company in “Cyclops”, a student with one eye in the middle of his forehead. Cyclops’s beautiful sister is nicknamed “Double Eyes,” but not all is as it appears. “Double Eyes” is actually a transgender male who has become the object of affection of Anthony, a rich boy who grew up in Switzerland and who has had 1000 girl friends and more than 11,000 text messages exchanged with them–he keeps careful count. Even after he discovers that “Double Eyes” is a boy, his ardor remains. Like Joe E. Brown in “Some Like it Hot,” he understands that nobody is perfect.

If this were not enough, “Dasepo Naughty Girls” is a musical in the Bollywood style. At the drop of a hat, the students will burst into song. There is so much more I can say about this terrific movie, but will instead urge you to see it on June 29th.

A scene from “Cruel Winter Blues”

2) “Cruel Winter Blues” (2006)

This is a gangster movie that dispenses with the pyrotechnics and choreographed fight scenes typical of most films in this genre. Instead, it is a character-driven study of life in a small town and the impact that a couple of gangsters make on it in their plans for revenge against a rival gangster.

The older of the two is Jae-Moon, a brutal thug with a Yakuza-like tattoo covering his back. Jae-Moon is played by Sol Kyong-Gu, the star of “Peppermint Candy,” a great movie about the corruption of big businessmen in Korea, and perfectly cast for another villainous role. Jae-Moon is accompanied by Chi-Juk (Jo Han-Seon), a recent recruit to Jae-Moon’s gang who is a Tae Kwan Do expert forced into the criminal world to pay for his mother’s hospital expenses. Chi-Juk has strong personal ties to the town and especially to the Tae Kwan Do instructor there. He is continually bullied by Jae-Moon, who understands that the gangster code of honor bans striking back at somebody higher in rank.

The two men have come to an ugly, god-forsaken rural town called Bulgyo to await the arrival of Dae-Shik, who has murdered Jae-Moon’s friend earlier that year. They begin to hang out at Dae-Shik’s mother’s restaurant to get word about when he is expected to show up.

Dae-Shik’s mother is played by Na Moon Hee as a kind of symbol of Bulgyo. She is as inhospitable as the town itself. When the two men come into her restaurant for the first time and order dumplings, she doesn’t even bother to stop peeling vegetables and turn around to greet them. The only thing on the menu is stew and if they don’t like it, they can go somewhere else.

After a few minutes, Jae-Moon goes out into the backyard behind the restaurant in search of a bathroom. After he discovers a dog tied to a tether that Dae-Shik’s mother is raising to be sold for food, he begins pissing on it out of sheer malice. Caught in the act by Dae-Shik’s mother, he and Chi-Juk are punished by eating a meal heavy with hot peppers. The two men not only take this in good sport, a subtle bond begins to grow between the brutal Jae-Moon and his prey’s mother who begins to become a surrogate mother.

The film is filled with striking images of the small town and the surrounding countryside, from which director Lee Jeong-beom draws out the inner beauty. In one scene, Jae-Moon accompanies Dae-Shik’s mother to a mud-hole where local women are eking out a living. She has brought them a hot meal that they share around a fire. After they’ve had a few drinks, they begin to make salacious invitations to the sheepishly grinning gangster.

Those who expect a John Woo style redemption of the older gangster will not find it here. He goes to his death as he as lived, without regard for himself or for his enemies. All you can say is that along that twisting road, he has learned to rediscover the shred of humanity that he thought he lost long ago. You can see this uniquely human drama with flawed major characters on July 1.

Both movies are filled with the characteristically dark-hued comic insights of the best Korean films. Unlike Hollywood comedies, Korean films do not aim at the lowest common denominator audience of the typical multiplex. The jokes are not telegraphed nor are they lingered over ad infinitum. The acting is of the highest order and the screenplays are for the ages.

Highly, highly recommended.

June 22, 2007

Whither The Nation Magazine?

Filed under: cruise missile left,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

Joaquin Villalobos

When The Nation published his attack on Hugo Chavez, did they know that the former FMLN commander turned neoconservative is an adviser to the bloodstained government of Colombia? We can assume that Marc Cooper, who convinced them to publish it, certainly knew.

If I hadn’t noticed Dennis Perrin’s favorable comments posted to Doug Henwood’s LBO-Talk mailing list about a World Socialist Website series of articles on The Nation Magazine prompted by Cindy Sheehan’s defection from the Democratic Party, I would have missed them completely: “This is what WSWS does best. Think the Nation might run a condensed version of this?” Since Dennis has a lot of experience writing comedy, you can be assured that the Nation would never even consider publishing even a single word of the WSWS critique at:




I was reminded of how rotten the Nation can be when I noticed an article by Joaquin Villalobos attacking Hugo Chavez in the latest issue. It prompted me to write the following web letter to the magazine:

Aren’t you people aware that Villalobos is a neoconservative? He supported the war in Iraq in 2003 and only opposes it now–tepidly–for the same reasons that George Packer does. In addition, he is a counterinsurgency adviser to the bloodstained government of Colombia. Did Marc Cooper urge you to publish this sordid item? I guess if you are going to publish Cockburn on global warming, you might as well publish this kind of nonsense.

Cooper translated the Villalobos article and convinced the Nation to run it. On his blog entry touting the article, Cooper wrote, “Completing his studies at Oxford, Villalobos is now one of the more sought-after consultants on security and development in Latin America.” Security, indeed. You might as well have hailed OSS veteran Edward Lansdale as a “sought-after consultant on security” in the 1960s. At least Lansdale didn’t use leftist rhetoric to justify his treachery the way that Villalobos does.

Here’s an excerpt from the WSWS series that sizes up Cooper and company quite well:

Cooper, Nichols, vanden Heuvel and the others are dishonest with themselves and their readers because their function as the journalistic representatives of the well-endowed think tanks, universities, media outlets, trade unions and consulting firms prevents them from dealing objectively and forthrightly with social relationships in America; they can’t call things by their proper names.

This better-off section of the middle class is unhappy with the current state of affairs, but long ago lost interest or hope, if it ever had any, in effecting a deep change in American society. These individuals apply pressure on the political process, in the end, to make life more comfortable for themselves and those around them.

In some cases, they have been transformed from radical youths into something quite different; their ‘old selves’ would be shocked by their ‘new selves.’ Whatever residual radicalism and opposition they may feel is trumped many times over by their social connections and obligations, which are much more deeply felt than anything else.

Having said all this, I must confess to being a subscriber to the Nation myself. After dropping my subscription in the 1990s, I wrote an open letter to Victor Navasky that began as follows:

Since this is being circulated on the Internet, where there are many non-USA participants, a word or two about the Nation would be helpful. The Nation was established in 1865 by a group of abolitionists and is the authoritative voice of left-liberalism in the US. During the 1930s and 40s, it was sympathetic to the views of the CPUSA and has often included Marxist contributors and editors. Doug Henwood, for example, is on the editorial board.

Long-time editor Victor Navasky was being interviewed on public television’s Open Mind a month or so ago and was explaining why long-term subscribers were important to the magazine. When you consider that a year’s subscription to the weekly costs $52, somebody who has been subscribing for five years, let’s say, has put up over $250 for the production costs of the magazine, which actually runs a deficit on a regular basis (no tobacco ads, etc.). Since I have been reading the magazine every week since early 1980 either on the newsstand or through subscription as is currently the case, this qualifies me as a long-term subscriber. In addition, I was responsible for first placing weekly ads in the Nation for my organization Tecnica over a 3 year stretch in the 1980s. Each ad cost $50 as I recall. At 50 issues or so a year, this represented $7500 in revenue, if my math is correct.

Around 5 years ago I began looking at the Nation again. The “war on terror” taking place under a rightwing Republican administration had put a bit of sizzle in the magazine. If it had grown flabby under Clinton, it was showing a bit of muscle with the “bad guys” running the government. I was also able to read the magazine for free since Columbia University made it available through Proquest. When the Nation terminated its connection to Proquest, I decided to take out a subscription once again. I generally skip the first 10 pages of the magazine, which is editorial twaddle about the latest misdeeds of the Republicans and go straight to the book review section, which is first-rate. Since I am a big-time crossword puzzle fan, I then attack the Nation’s puzzle which is modeled after the British stumpers that appear in the Times Literary Supplement.

Although I find the WSWS articles quite useful in filling in the historical background, I tend to disagree with their focus on the 1930s as constituting the “original sin” of the magazine. This was a period when the publishers were typical New Deal fans of the Kremlin. As ortho-Trotskyists, this is naturally what WSWS would fixate on.

In my own history of the Nation, I go back much further to the magazine’s origins. It was abolitionist but not radically so. During Reconstruction, it was one of the voices in the North that grew upset with the emancipatory logic of the struggle to eliminate the vestiges of slavery to the point of apologetics for the KKK. As bourgeois liberals, they were afraid that the struggle might spill over into the North and challenge private property. They might have been for freedom, but only as long as it included free enterprise.

These are the opening paragraphs of my article titled “The Nation Magazine’s Tainted Liberalism” that was posted to the Marxism list on March 1, 2003:

This article is an attempt to get to the roots of the yearlong attack on the antiwar movement by figures associated with the Nation Magazine, both within and outside its pages. While this campaign has chiefly been directed at Ramsey Clark and the ANSWER coalition, there is little doubt that what is driving it is animosity toward the radical movement in general.

There has been a tendency, especially at the website of our friends at Counterpunch, to understand this in terms of character flaws. Whether you are dealing with Christopher Hitchen’s alcoholism or Marc Cooper’s creepiness, it is understandable that one might assign a disproportionate weight to such factors. While these are certainly repugnant characters, we are obligated to get at the ideological roots of this 128-year-old liberal institution, which in many ways are far creepier than any individual journalist’s tics or vices.

Largely owing to the well-oiled public relations machinery of the Nation, nearly anybody who has heard of the magazine knows that abolitionists founded it in 1865. Naturally this would lead the average informant, including myself until this investigation began, to assume that the magazine was on the barricades fighting all sorts of injustice.

We get a hint of the real Nation from an article that was included in the 1990 anthology titled “The Nation 1865-1900: Selections from the Independent Magazine of Politics and Culture.” When my eyes first spotted editor and founder E.L. Godkin’s “The Execution of the Anarchists”, I assumed like any normal person that this piece was a 19th century version of “Free Mumia”. In the preface, however, we learn that “Godkin wrote several pieces calling for the hanging of the Chicago anarchists; the magazine, under his editorial control, also opposed trade unions and attacked socialists.” Why this was the case appeared to be of little interest to the anthologist who is content to reflect that certain pages of Godkin’s Nation make for “strange reading.”

In his characteristic take-no-prisoner prose, Godkin states, “The notion that we must tolerate speech the object of which is to induce people to break up the social organization and abolish property by force, is historically and politically absurd.”

Since editor Katrina Vanden Heuvel states that Godkin’s magazine was “claiming for itself the right of citizens in a democracy to carp, protest, condemn, revile, applaud, celebrate, prophesy and otherwise give themselves to the articulate of their circumstances,” one must wonder why she omitted the qualification “except for anarchists.”

Indeed, throughout the Nation Magazine’s first 35 years or so, you would be hard-put to find a challenge to the gathering dark clouds of reaction against black rights, the labor movement, woman’s suffrage or other causes. The magazine spoke out against women having the vote (the speeches of people like Victoria Woodhull were “shrill, incoherent, shallow and irrelevant”) and warned that the eight-hour day would “diminish production.”

I.F. Stone deftly sized up the editorial outlook, which can best be described as laissez faire 19th century liberalism, in an earlier anthology published in 1965 titled “One Hundred Years of the Nation.”

“But to advocate laissez faire consistently and honestly, as The Nation and Godkin did, was to adopt a lonely and ineffectual attitude— hostile to the capitalist trend toward monopoly, hostile to the agrarian cry for regulation of railroads and business, hostile to the workers’ attempts at collective action. In England the advocate of laissez faire marched in the triumphant ranks of the merchants and manufacturers; in America he fought a hopeless rear-guard action in the retreating forces of small business men, rentiers, and the Adams family. The Nation under Godkin attacked the Grangers, the Populists, the trade unions, the single-taxers, and the Socialists, as well as the trusts, the railroad barons, the tariff log-rollers, and the stockjobbing financiers. But the second group was to transform our economy and the first our politics until laissez faire liberalism, once a revolutionary and liberating force, became the slogan of reactionaries.”

Read the entire article here.


June 21, 2007

British farming and market imperatives

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 6:39 pm

William Cobbett, early British radical
Loved British farming but hated capitalism

Robert Brenner applies the “case study” approach to defend the “agrarian capitalism” thesis. This is the stock and trade of PhD dissertations. My wife is just finishing up her own, which compares financial crises before and after Bretton Woods in order to answer the question whether the U.S. is in decline. By the same token, Brenner compares Great Britain and France in the 16th through 18th century in order to answer the question whether big tenant farms or small family farms are better hotbeds of capitalist growth.

All in all, the methodology seems to owe a lot to the physical sciences. For example, you might take two mice and feed one with a diet of McDonald’s Big Macs for a month and the other a nice vegetarian diet. The one eating Big Macs will end up a total wreck, much like France with its inefficient small family farms. However, there are significant differences between the mouse and society. The scientist can be relatively assured that the two mice he is testing are pretty much alike. He can also test their blood and cell samples during the testing period to see how they are responding to the diets. But France and Great Britain were not exactly alike in the early 16th century, were they? An even more decisive difficulty is establishing the link between tenant farming and subsequent economic development in Great Britain. Gentlemen farmers were notoriously neglectful when it came to keeping financial records–the mice blood of capitalism. Of course, the Brenner camp has never felt any great need to track capital flows. They are much more comfortable saying things like this:

So in England, a society in which wealth still derived predominantly from agricultural production, the self-reproduction of both major economic actors in the agrarian sector—direct producers and the appropriators of their surpluses—were, at least from the sixteenth century, increasingly dependent on what amounted to capitalist practices: the maximization of exchange value by means of cost-cutting and improving productivity, by specialization, accumulation, and innovation.

When you frame things in this fashion–an excerpt from Ellen Meiksins Wood’s July-August 1998 Monthly Review article titled “The Agrarian Origins of Capitalism“–there is obviously no need to examine anything as mundane as bank records. Her article is distinguished by its utter lack of quantitative data. If my wife was this neglectful in her dissertation, she would have washed out of the PhD program long ago.

As far as case studies are concerned, I think it would be far more useful to compare Great Britain with colonial America. In the colonies, you had small family farms in the North and slave labor in the South. Despite these economic equivalents of McDonald’s sandwiches, the U.S. emerged as the most powerful capitalist nation in world history. In any case, I don’t find such case-study type comparisons all that useful. The major failing of the Brenner school is the lack of a general economic history of Great Britain of the kind that Maurice Dobb produced. We of course should remind ourselves that Dobb put as much emphasis on colonialism and town-based manufacturing as he did on the so-called agrarian revolution. In this respect, he was simply following Marx.

In his article on Brenner in “Eight Eurocentric Historians,” Jim Blaut wrote:

Brenner has in mind the marvelously rapid technological advance which accompanied capitalism during and after the industrial revolution, the process which Marx identified as a central feature of modern capitalism, new technology being a crucial strategy for firms in their competition with other firms; Brenner (quoting Marx) insists that the “rational” process of constantly revolutionizing technology is an essential attribute of all capitalism, then casts all of this back into a time when, in fact, constant revolutionary technological advance just did not take place. The mysticism of his concept of capitalism overrides the facts, and the 18th century is pushed back into the 15th.

Although Jim was right to challenge Brenner’s errant timing, I think that there is a bit more that can be said about British farming in the 18th century. Although this is clearly a time in which capitalist property relations pervade throughout Great Britain, there is evidence that the large tenant farms so enshrined as exemplars of capitalist rationality defied the norms of the Industrial Revolution, a period characterized by the triumph of free market dynamism.

In chapter 47 of V. 3 of Capital (Genesis of Capitalist Ground-Rent), Marx writes:

Large-scale industry and large-scale mechanised agriculture work together. If originally distinguished by the fact that the former lays waste and destroys principally labour-power, hence the natural force of human beings, whereas the latter more directly exhausts the natural vitality of the soil, they join hands in the further course of development in that the industrial system in the countryside also enervates the labourers, and industry and commerce on their part supply agriculture with the means for exhausting the soil.

This is the capitalist agriculture of the Industrial Revolution but it is not that of the earlier period. Indeed, the distinguishing characteristic of British farming prior to “large-scale mechanised agriculture” was its adherence to sound environmental norms even if they defied marketplace imperatives. Those large tenant farms were very careful to integrate natural fertilizers with crops. This practice was discontinued as farming became more and more market-oriented. After reading German soil chemist Liebig, Marx became convinced that a return to prior practices was necessary but also understood that it had to rest on socialist foundations. Once genuine capitalist agriculture became the norm, humanity would continue to face one crisis after another. The only resolution was to reintegrate town and country so as to overcome the metabolic rift that capitalism had produced.

Colin Duncan’s “The Centrality of Agriculture” contains an excellent discussion of these issues in chapter 2, titled “Agriculture Privileged and Benign: English Capitalism in its Light-Industrial Prime”. Duncan agrees with Brenner that there was a profound change in property relations in the British countryside, but challenges the idea that this had much to do with “the maximization of exchange value by means of cost-cutting and improving productivity, by specialization, accumulation, and innovation,” to use Ellen Meiksins Wood’s words. Paradoxically, the “improvements” found in British farming in the pre-Industrial Revolution period involve greater costs and thorough defiance of market mechanisms.

To start with, British tenant farming in the “classical” period is marked by very long leases, up to 21 years. Long leases encouraged experiments with “improvement”, such as crop rotation, etc. The tenant farmer was expected to provide most of the capital for such ventures and could only be assured of staying profitable through a long-term lease. Capitalist logic, of course, would favor short-term leases since they tend to be more responsive to market fluctuations.

Such long-term leases were necessary for the tenant farmer to implement crop rotation cycles which often spanned 20 years. During a long cycle, it was not unusual for 2/3rds of the land to be allocated to grass, which had no commercial value but could be used to re-enrich the soil. Farm animals ate the grass and then supplied the manure that could be used to fertilize the crops. Colin Duncan writes:

Interestingly, and rather embarrassingly for Brenner, many of these new farming practices were very costly and did not allow labour to be shed, as [Keith] Tribe has recently re-emphasized [in ‘Genealogies of Capitalism.’] Rather, they often required additional labour inputs, and in large quantities. Clearly such improvements do not fit the pattern of industrial labour-saving technology so characteristic of our current economics and anachronistically posited by Brenner as a hallmark of early modern farming in England.

A.G. Street, a Wiltshire farmer, wrote a memoir titled “Farmer’s Glory” that celebrated pre-Industrial Revolution type farming of the type that “didn’t consider whether the crop one was sowing would pay a profit over the cost of production or not. That never entered anybody’s mind.

Keep in mind that William Cobbett was one of the first anti-capitalists in the 19th century who supported the Captain Swing riots that involved impoverished farm workers destroying threshing machines, one of the first genuinely mechanical breakthroughs that improved the productivity of labor. But Cobbett was also a champion of the “high farming” practices of the earlier period. His “Rural Rides” attacked the industrial revolution and called for a return to an agricultural-based economy. How does he fit into the Brenner thesis? Not very neatly, I am afraid.

Finally, it is necessary to say a word or two about the Settlement Laws, which tied farmland to the English gentry’s extended family for generations. These laws were basically a revival of the feudal ‘entail’, a form of primogeniture. It not only stipulated who would get the land, it also prescribed how it would be used–in many instances quite wisely from an environmentalist standpoint. For example, there were rules against cutting timber without provision for replacement. When I discovered this, I wondered how much progress we have made since the 18th century.

Duncan characterizes the Settlement Laws in a manner that seems quite at odds with Brenner’s belief that the agrarian revolution of the 15th to 17th century foreshadowed our own epoch:

Being perpetually mere stewards for the next generation, the members of the English landlord class whose estates were settled thereby incidentally prevented themselves from taking the short-term view on land use. Arable land especially had to be passed to the heir in a condition at least as good as before. To a remarkable extent this class lived in the most literal accord with the Green Party slogan “We do not inherit the Earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children.”

June 18, 2007

Reporting to Studebaker

Filed under: Education — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

This morning I reported to work at my new office in the remodeled Studebaker building on West 131st Street near the Hudson River. It is Columbia University’s initial foray into the Manhattanville neighborhood, with plans for more expansion in years to come. As was the case in 1968, Columbia is butting heads with the Black and Latino community. The area is home to a number of small businesses, mostly gas stations, warehouses, car repair and moving joints. Columbia is trying to avoid the explosion of nearly 40 years ago through bribes and cutting deals with Black Democrats, but there is still resentment. As I passed one gas station, I noticed a big banner on the wall about the need to resist Columbia. I wish they had resisted Studebaker in fact. I much preferred working on campus since I am in the libraries 2 or 3 times a week. I also used nearby cafeterias. There is nothing near 131st Street except Chinese take-out and McDonalds.

When I got to my new desk this morning, I noticed that part of the welcoming package was a model of a 1953 Studebaker, a car exactly like the one my father drove. Studebaker went out of business in 1966. At the time, people joked that you couldn’t tell if the car was going forwards or backwards since the front and rear of the car looked so much alike.

My dad was a typical penny-pinching veteran of the Great Depression. Long after the car was burning oil, he held on to it. In 1959, my mother took me and her mother to go hear Richard Tucker at the Concord Hotel. Tucker was one of the great Jewish opera stars, who also sang religious Cantorial music. When we pulled up to the entrance of the Concord trailing smoke, I noticed one of the rich Jews who had just stepped out of a Cadillac laughing and pointing at our jalopy. It was my introduction to class society.

June 17, 2007

Alexander Cockburn digs a deeper hole

Filed under: Ecology,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 5:02 pm

Chernobyl thyroid cancer victim
Subject of denial by Cockburn fave Zbigniew Jaworowski

I can just see Alexander Cockburn bawling out a Nation Magazine intern last week. “Look, when I told you to find an article by Zbigniew Jaworowski, I assumed that you would have sense enough to not go near Larouche with a ten foot pole. Don’t you know how embarrassing it is for me to have to explain myself now?”

Of course, if Alexander Cockburn was a bit less lazy, he’d have vetted the material before it found its way into the pages of the Nation Magazine. I guess he was snookered by the innocuous-sounding title of Larouche’s magazine: 21st Century Science & Technology. With his characteristic pugnaciousness, he now chooses to brazen it out and make Jaworowski sound legitimate.

He writes, “I strongly doubt that Jaworowski knows much or indeed anything about the more sinister and odious aspects of the LaRouch [sic] enterprise, and sent along his paper because they asked him to.” Of course, the issue is not so much whether Jaworowski is the babe in the woods that Cockburn alleges, but whether we should have expected more from Cockburn himself. As probably the highest-profile radical journalist in the U.S. since John Reed, one might have hoped that he would have rolled up his sleeves and examined this material more closely. It seems, however, that it his very elevated reputation that subverts his ability to examine his work critically. As should be obvious from Woody Allen’s movies, this is an occupational hazard of the high and mighty.

Although most of Cockburn’s self-justification is directed against George Monbiot, I imagine that his comment “There were also claims that Jaworowski had somehow discounted the effects of nuclear radiation, particularly at Chernobyl” was a reference to my blog entry “Alexander Cockburn and Zbigniew Jaworowski,” where I called attention to the Polish scientist’s pro-nuke sentiments. Cockburn assures us:

Actually, Jaworowski’s article “The Real Chernobyl Folly” was quite reasonable. He clearly acknowledges the acute radiation deaths of the ‘first responders’. His points about some of the uninformed and wasteful countermeasures, the real psychological damage caused by panic, and the exaggerated claims of victimhood, etc., etc., were all quite sensible. Jaworowski does seem to favor the use nuclear power [sic], as do many advocates of the anthropogenic origins of global warming.

Keeping in mind that Alexander Cockburn’s main goal is to preempt nuclear power at the hands of global warming conspirers like Al Gore, it is quite striking that Jaworowski gets just a gentle tap on the wrist as he were no worse than the 84 year old James Lovelock, of Gaia theory fame, who believes that nuclear power can halt global warming.

Lovelock’s defense of nuclear power is more akin to that of a physician who recommends risky surgery to save the life of a patient. By contrast, if Zbigniew Jaworowski were a physician, his attitude toward nuclear radiation would be more in line with prescribing vitamin B injections as a way to stay healthy. Just three years ago, he told the BBC: “Low levels of radiation are probably essential for life itself.” I guess I will have to keep this in mind the next time I go get a full-mouth X-Ray at the dentist. Maybe I should get them twice a year, when I get my teeth cleaned. That should guarantee that I live to 90 at least.

For Cockburn, Jaworowski’s admission that early responders died of radiation poisoning lets him off the hook, but he is curiously silent on the more controversial aspects. Specifically, in a May 30, 2000 BBC interview, Jaworowski is asked, “Could we just talk about Chernobyl – how has the residual radiation affected the health of the population?” Jaworowski replies:

It seems that the thyroid doses in the former Soviet Union were too small to cause the thyroid cancers, which also appeared too early (4 years after accident). It seems that not radiation but screening effect is here the main culprit. In normal populations occurs a very high number of hidden thyroid cancers, those with no clinical manifestations, and called the “occult cancers”. The incidence of occult cancers in Canada is 6,000 per 100,000 persons, 9,000 in Poland, 13,000 in the United States, and 35,000 in Finland. The greatest incidence that was registered in Gomel region, Belarus was 18 cancers per 100,000 persons. Thus potential for detection of “excess” thyroid cancers, after improving or intensifying the diagnostics, is enormous. I doubt that Chernobyl thyroid cancers are caused by Chernobyl radiation.

Elsewhere in the interview, Jaworowski opines, “However, no hereditary effects were discovered in the progeny of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki irradiated with high sub-lethal doses.” When I read this, I felt like I had truly wandered into the world of mad scientists. It is too bad that Bela Lugosi is dead. He would have been a natural to play Jaworowski in a biopic.

Jaworowski sought the imprimatur of an official United Nations body when defending these views in his article “The Truth About Chernobyl is Found” in the Larouchite magazine:

The recent report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) is in total disagreement with the opinions widely propagated by the international media, by the Greens, and by the governments of Belarus and Ukraine, that there have been tens of thousands of cancer deaths and epidemics of genetic disorders, allegedly caused by the Chernobyl accident. To the contrary, UNSCEAR states, even among the progeny of the survivors of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who received radiation doses hundreds of times higher than the radiation doses to the inhabitants of regions contaminated by the Chernobyl accident, no radiogenetic disturbances of health have been found.

As it turns out, UNSCEAR (Jaworowski was a former chairman) relied on the findings of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a group that promotes nuclear energy everywhere in the world. But there was another report from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs that found a much higher incidence of thyroid cancer, more than 11,000 cases.

Perhaps Cockburn’s trust in an IAEA-inspired report on Chernobyl is misplaced, given past reporting in Counterpunch. Two years ago, Alice Slater attacked the Nobel Prize being awarded to IAEA director Mohammed El Baradei, since:

The IAEA has been instrumental in covering up the disastrous health effects of the Chernobyl tragedy, understating the number of deaths by attributing only 50 deaths directly to the accident. This was a whitewash of health studies performed by Russia and the Ukraine which estimated thousands of deaths and thousands who suffered thyroid cancer and leukemia as a result of the accident.

So this weekend Alexander Cockburn ends up applauding the very report that his own publication was condemning only 2 years ago. I can understand that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, but this is ridiculous.

As should be obvious at this point, the good Polish doctor has devoted his life to singing the wonders of nuclear energy. In a way, he reminds me of the group that I and some friends pulled together in 1961 at Bard College called “The Welcome the Bomb Committee.” That year NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller was pushing air raid shelters on a skeptical population. We decided to take the opposite tack and form a welcoming committee for a Russian bomb, since a welcomed bomb would be less dangerous. Unlike Jaworowski, we were only kidding.

Just one last piece of documentation on Jaworowski that neither Cockburn nor his trusty interns could turn up. He co-authored an article for Spiked-online with Roger Bate titled “Depleted uranium: what is the health risk? I guess I don’t have to tell you where they stand.

The fact that Jaworowski would publish in Spiked-online as well as Larouche’s magazine should put to rest once and for all the notion that he is some kind of naïf, unfamiliar with the world of corporate hackery. Like Larouche, Frank Furedi and his co-thinkers have spent the better part of the past 10 years promoting nuclear power and discounting global warming. The simple truth is that the two positions go hand in hand, since they are both about the right of energy companies to do as they see fit.

When Jaworowski decided to hook up with Roger Bate, he surely must have been aware that he was a long-time hired gun for toxic corporate interests. He has done yeoman work for top consulting dollars “proving” that DDT is needed to stop malaria and that genetic engineering is good for your health and the environment, two other pet hobbyhorses of Furedi’s.

In my initial article on Cockburn’s global warming skepticism, I said, “I have a dismaying sense of déjà vu reading Alexander Cockburn’s global warming articles. Around ten years ago, I and my good friend, the late Mark Jones, had an ongoing debate with one James Heartfield about these very questions. James was a militant of the Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain, to be distinguished from the American sect by its love of DDT, nuclear power and genetically modified crops rather than Mao’s Little Red Book.”

I continue to be dismayed that Alexander Cockburn can promote the reputation of people who travel in these circles. How sad for him and how sad for Counterpunch.

June 15, 2007

The Twilight of the Nation State

Filed under: economics,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 6:57 pm

With the war in Iraq now in its fourth year, all other struggles against imperialism have seemed to recede into the background. However, with the German protests against the G8 meeting in early June, we are reminded that the anti-globalization movement still has the power to move large numbers of people into struggle. Furthermore, at a higher level, the two struggles against the occupation of Iraq and against neoliberal trade agreements are dealing with the same phenomenon. That at least would be the argument of Prem Shankar Jha, the author of the recently published “The Twilight of the Nation State: Globalization, Chaos and War.” While the question of whether the nation-state is being made obsolete by globalization will continue to be debated now and in the future, there can be little argument with the mass of data presented by Jha. He makes a stunning case for the existence of a systematic domination of the weak by the powerful and the need to resist it.

As a Visiting Fellow at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs in 1995, Jha found himself growing increasingly uneasy with triumphalist Fukuyama-style encomiums to capitalist democracy. Until that year, he had been an editor at the Hindustan Times and had his doubts about the free market system from first-hand experience. The India he was familiar with first-hand seemed to defy Fukuyama’s pat solutions. His unease was communicated in a series of articles for “The Hindu” that year, one of which presciently concluded that “a large segment of society now feels that it has become a victim of changes over which it had no control, and which the government and ruling class did nothing to protect it from.” Those articles form the kernel of “Twilight of the Nation State.”

The first chapter is a critique of both Fukuyama’s “The End of History” and Samuel Huntington’s “The Third Wave”. (If Fukuyama has stepped back from his mid 1990s triumphalism, it is only because history has forced him to. One imagines that if a more adroit imperialist foreign policy had been pursued, he would have remained just as cocky.) Although best known for his “Clash of Civilizations” article, Huntington had been thinking along the same lines as Fukuyama. He believed that there were democracy “waves” from 1828-1926, 1943-1962, and now the latest from 1974-1990. He used (or misused) World Bank statistics to show that the more prosperity a country enjoyed, the more democracy would obtain. And, echoing cold-warrior Rudy Rummel, Huntington further argued that democracies do not go to war with each other.

In addition, apologists for globalization like Thomas Friedman argue that when capital has untrammeled freedom to flow across borders, the end result can only be increased prosperity. In “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” he writes that globalization only increases the incentives for not making war since it will be more costly than “any previous era in modern history.” With the costs of the Iraq war now beyond the $1 trillion point, Friedman is both right and wrong. It is more costly, but that has not prevented a “democracy” from incurring the associated costs.

Taking Eric Hobsbawm’s “Age of Extremes” as his guiding star (Hobsbawm wrote the preface to “Twilight”), Jha puts forward a much more pessimistic and realistic assessment:

In The Age of Extremes Eric Hobsbawm described the last three decades of the twentieth century as ‘crisis decades’ that saw the re-emergence of disorder in human society and concluded with the observation that he felt ‘less reason to feel hopeful about the future than in the middle 80s. This book attempts to explore the causes of his instinctive pessimism. It suggests that the root cause of the growing disorder is that capitalism has burst the confines of the nation state, and is in the inexorable process of converting a large part (although as yet not quite the whole) of the globe into its new ‘container’. The process is highly destructive and fraught with violence. This is the process that we refer to as globalization.

For Jha, the concept of a container is critical to his entire argument. First introduced by Fernand Braudel, it refers to the successive frameworks that a capitalist economy operates within until it busts them asunder under the pressure of new technology and economic imperatives. In his view, capitalism has done this three times. Initially, the Italian city-states gave birth to capitalism but were superseded by Holland and then by Great Britain. By the end of the nineteenth century, capitalism began to outgrow the nation-state itself and required a more dominant global power like the U.S. But today, the imperatives of capitalism require turning the entire planet into its container–hence globalization.

Prem Shankar Jha

While it is doubtful that any book, no matter how powerfully argued, will ever resolve the debate about the obsolescence of the nation-state, there can be no doubt about Jha’s impressive painstaking research and command of the data in contrast to Hardt and Negri’s data-challenged “Empire,” a book that shares many of the same core assumptions. One might disagree with Jha’s conclusions, but all the same be more than enlightened by his findings.

For example, in dealing with the question of whether the late nineteenth century was just as much on the leading edge of globalization through the first-time use of steamships and telegraph, Jha points to the qualitative changes produced through the telecommunications revolution:

No conceivable reduction in telephone charges could have unified the world’s commodity, foreign exchange, money and stock markets into a single global market in which there was round-the-clock trading in real time. One needed permanent computer hook-ups on the internet to make that possible. It is the change in both the speed of communication and in the sheer volume of information that can be processed and transmitted in seconds, more than simply the decline in costs, which makes the present knitting together of global economy qualitatively different in kind from what occurred between 1850 and 1913. In 1913 while trade was international, manufacturing remained wholly (or, in the case of Japan, largely national.) The difference is captured by the composition of foreign direct investment. In the nineteenth century three-fifths of foreign direct investment went into the development of infrastructure that was designed to facilitate trade. By contrast, more than three-fifths of today’s foreign direct investment is going into the establishment of manufacturing facilities abroad.

Clearly, whatever one thinks about the problematic of the nation-state versus a globalized economy, one can profit from such a substantive work. Even when I found myself disagreeing with some of the author’s conclusions, I continued to underline passages that I would find useful in my own research on the global economy.

Ultimately, questions about American hegemony, the obsolescence or non-obsolescence of the nation-state, how capitalism was born, the degree to which the capitalist system is crisis-ridden, etc. can never really be resolved since the data is so impossible to reduce to a single set of verifiable propositions. Indeed, the more I read literature dealing with these issues, the more I am convinced that disagreements over the relevant data account for all other differences.

In the spirit of ecumenical scholarship of the left, I can heartily recommend “The Twilight of the Nation State.” It is by far the most convincing case I have seen for the globalization hypothesis, as well as being a impassioned manifesto against the rich and powerful on behalf of the world’s disempowered majority.

Order from U. of Michigan Press or Pluto Press

June 14, 2007

No End in Sight

Filed under: Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 3:28 pm

Last Monday night I made the mistake of attending a press screening for “No End in Sight,” a documentary about the war in Iraq. Expecting a hard-hitting denunciation of U.S. foreign policy, I was instead treated to 102 minutes of people like Richard Armitage, Samantha Power and George Packer explaining why things turned sour. All in all, I felt like I was watching the PBS News Hour but without even the token appearance of a leftist like Juan Cole.

Director Charles Ferguson, upset over blunders in Iraq

The movie is just another example of the “what went wrong” mentality that occurs when an imperialist invasion fails to achieve its stated goals. After Vietnam proved to be unwinnable, “peace politicians” began to speechify about the “tragedy.” If LBJ had been able to accomplish his goals, as he had in the Dominican Republic, there never would have been a peep out of them.

“No End in Sight” hardly goes into the criminality of the invasion, as do many inside-the-beltway studies like Thomas Ricks’s “Fiasco.” There is no hand-wringing over nonexistent WMD’s or alleged ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda. This is not to speak of the film’s utter refusal to even question American material interests in the region, including the desire to control oil. This obviously flows from the worldview of director Charles Ferguson, who has a PhD in political science from MIT and who went on to consult for the White House and the Department of Defense. He is now a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. This is not exactly the sort of person who will even entertain the idea that the U.S. does not have a right to impose its will on other peoples. His main interest is in figuring out why such a project did not work so as to help the ruling class figure out how to do it better next time.

Drawing upon the dubious insights of General Jay Garner, the head of Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), who was eventually replaced by the infamous Paul Bremer, the film argues that there were three fundamental mistakes:

1. The U.S. failed to pull together a puppet (my word obviously) government in a timely fashion.

2. It decided to purge the bureaucracy of all Baath party members.

3. It dissolved the Iraqi army.

If these mistakes hadn’t occurred, things would be proceeding swimmingly. That at least is the impression that the rogue’s gallery of interviewees intend to communicate. One of them is Colonel Paul Hughes, who recounts how he wanted to beat down George W. Bush’s door to warn him about the consequences of dissolving the Iraqi army. One imagines that in Mr. Ferguson’s insular little but powerful world, Paul Hughes plays the same role that Martin Luther King Jr. played in ours. Nowadays Hughes is involved with the United States Institute of Peace, an outfit that is run by Chester A. Crocker, who was Ronald Reagan’s Undersecretary of State, a position that surely earned him the qualifications to promote world peace, as long as we understand this as the peace of the graveyard.

Belgrade passenger train destroyed by NATO bomb

At least with Paul Hughes, there can be no confusion about what he stands for. He is careerist military bureaucrat who grieves now over the fact that Iraq does not resemble Jordan. But it is characters like Samantha Powers and George Packer who nearly had me bolting from my seat. Powers and Packer made a career out of promoting “humanitarian interventions” from their roosts at Harvard University and the New Yorker Magazine respectively. Both were deeply involved in pushing for war in Yugoslavia and are mainly upset today because Bush was not as adroit as Clinton in bending the will of a foreign population to our aims. They see Bosnia and Kosovo as big success stories, even if it was accomplished through war crimes such as destroying passenger trains and the human beings within.

Obviously not recommended.

June 12, 2007

British farming resisted mechanization until the 1850s

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

In Jim Blaut’s article on Robert Brenner in “8 Eurocentric Historians,” he dismisses the claim that there was anything particularly innovative in British farming:

Let us unpack this problem into smaller and more manageable ones. Firstly, Kerridge’s 16th-century agricultural revolution is still, as to timing, a century too late to satisfy Brenner’s theory: serfdom gave way to “free” tenantry before the end of the 14th century. Secondly, Brenner argues that technological advances, after the freeing of the peasants, led to the enlargement of holdings and the creation of capitalist farms. But the technological advances which had this effect occurred a couple of centuries later: effect therefore precedes cause. The two revolutionary technological advances actually discussed by Brenner were not at all revolutionary. He cites an innovation in irrigation technology (floating of water meadows), but this was neither very innovative — irrigation being an old art — nor very important.12 And he cites a new system of rotation involving the alternating of improved pasture with cropland (“convertible husbandry”), but this did not intensify production (some other, older, rotations were very much more intensive) although it was a solid advance in pasture technology.13 So the entire argument about a sort of instantaneous appearance of “rationality,” and then, immediately and directly, the beginnings of revolutionary technological advance, is simply empty.

I don’t know much about Robert Brenner’s expertise on farming matters, but Jim Blaut had the kind of hands on experience that would allow him to evaluate claims about technological breakthroughs. As an undergraduate at the U. of Chicago in the mid-1940s, he studied with geographer Robert Platt, a Latin America specialist, who encouraged Jim to study Latin American agriculture. This prompted Jim to study at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad after graduating the U. of Chicago. The Antipode tribute to Jim states, “The knowledge gained, especially courses on tropical soils with F. Hardy, was to serve him well in his later studies of small scale farming in Southeast Asia, of shifting cultivation in Latin America, and especially, in 1957, of soil erosion and conservation in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica.” Later on, he would become a visiting professor in Agricultural Economics at Cornell University in 1960 and a consultant in agriculture to the Venezuelan Government from 1963-64.

Since Robert Brenner bases his case to some degree on the writings of agricultural historian G.E. Mingay, it might be useful to look at another article by him in addition to the 1962 article on British farm size that I have cited. The title is “The ‘Agricultural Revolution’ in English History: a Reconsideration” (Agricultural History, July, 1963). The scare quotes are intentional.

The article is intended to correct the misunderstanding created by historians like J.L. and Barbara Hammond, who–in Mingay’s words–“elaborated the Marxist view of enclosure as the transformation of a settled peasantry into a landless proletariat, driven by want and class legislation to face the choice of either leaving the countryside to become the exploited tools of the factory masters, or of remaining there as the degraded, underemployed and underpaid hands of the capitalist farmers.”

This analysis Mingay describes as “seriously imperfect“. After acknowledging the improvements made in animal husbandry and adapting plants such as turnips to local conditions, he turns his attention to the question of the use of labor and machinery:

Of implements and machinery the story is different, for apart from improvements in the design of ploughs and the supplementing of the two-wheel carts by four-wheel wagons, there were few important advances that were widely adopted before the late eighteenth century. Then the Industrial Revolution eventually brought about the replacement of implements of local design, constructed of wood, stone or wrought iron, by the standarised factory product made of cast iron. It was about the 1780s that machines began to become important for lightening some of the laborious tasks of the farm, and the earliest ones included threshing machines, chaff cutters, root slicers and crushers. Many of these were first worked by hand or by horses, but eventually they were adapted to steam. However, the advance of the machines was slow, partly because many farmers were too small and too poor to buy them, partly because of the diversified output and varied growing conditions of English farming–the early American reapers, for instance, often failed in England–and partly because labor was plentiful and cheap. Only from about the 1850s did machinery become commonplace (although steam power was still highly exceptional), and only from that period could it be said to play a very significant part in agricultural output.

Now maybe Robert Brenner has a more sophisticated understanding of Marxism than I do, but I have always been under the impression that competition forces the bourgeoisie to replace living labor with dead (machines, in other words.) But in supposedly the most dynamic sector of British society, there was no need to do so. Gosh, you learn something new everyday.


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